Cyborgs and techno-orientalism

It started with reading Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man That Was Used Up, mentioned in last week’s lecture on cyborgs. The short story tells of a general who is celebrated by the American military for his role in the forced displacement of Native American populations. The story’s epiphany reveals that the general is entirely made up of prostheses, having lost all his biologically human parts over the war. The title suggests that, with the loss of his human body, the cyborg-general has lost some fundamental part of his humanity, or soul. Furthermore, in situating this tension of man vs machine within the context of American military aggression, Poe has drawn a parallel between the two; the perfect war machine is not a man but a cyborg. It is a subtle but noticeable critique of the lack of humanity of these American war campaigns – only a robot could be capable of it.

[T]he figure of the cyborg might be reinterpreted as a version of Leviathan, in the sense of Thomas Hobbes, who defined the figure of the absolute ruler (Leviathan) as an artificial man with an artificial soul. 

Takayuki Tatsumi, Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America.

Poe wrote the story during the rise of industrialisation, which provoked anxieties about the loss of jobs involving manual labour. In The Man That Was Used Up, there is a question of what roles or trajectories will masculinity take in a robotic age where brute force is no longer only a human ability?

Alternate ending: the West has fallen

I want to introduce the idea of techno-orientalism here, as it has some resonances with the fear of masculinity becoming redundant in a technologically-advanced future. In the case of techno-orientalism, however, the fear is that the entire West will be replaced or made dystopian by East Asian economic expansion and technological superiority.

Blade Runner 2049, 2017

While cyberpunk’s aesthetics often draw from non-specific East Asian cities, I don’t want to flatten this to simply ‘cyberpunk bad’. It’s important to recognise the artistic debt many Western cyberpunk/cyborg narratives have to works like Akira (1988), which takes place in a neo-Tokyo and inspired film-makers globally. However, issues arise when Western cyborg narratives use the aesthetics of a decontextualised pan-Asian city, in which an apocalyptic story takes place, equating Asianness with a fallen West and a low quality of life. Usually, these stories have few Asian characters and instead centre white male protagonist-heroes – see Neuromancer, Bladerunner, etc. If these narratives include Asian characters, they are likely to be depicted as robots and are often highly sexualised, hence the trope’s tagline by Jane Hu: ‘where the future is Asian, and the Asians are robots.’

Ex Machina, 2014

Where does this trope come from?

Techno-orientalism is usually understood as arising from Western anxieties about Japan’s economic boom in the 1980s. Under techno-orientalism, these fears about the superior manufacturing of Japan correspond with the dehumanising of Asian bodies into robotic entities, mimetic of the products that Japan’s factories were actually making. Therefore, in these Western cyborgian films, Asian people are depicted as artificial, intrusive and lacking the ‘humanity’ of the white characters who inhabited these films. I think that’s why this trope is important to highlight when we talk about cyborgs and cyberpunk, as we have often done in our class. Relating to Poe’s The Man That Was Used Up, ideas about who has a ‘soul’ or humanity are always relating to the fears of the contemporary culture. As much as I love cyberpunk, the history of the genre has a basis in an ideology of xenophobia and latent Western anxiety of no longer being the dominant culture. That’s not to say every piece of media that engages with cyberpunk propagates this ideology, and I enjoyed the film After Yang, which subverts aspects of the trope.

After Yang, 2021

Ultimately, I see The Man That Was Used Up as distinct from techo-orientalist narratives, because in Poe’s story, the aggressive expansion of the West is criticised through the figure of the war general/monstrous cyborg, whereas techno-orientalism is all about the anxiety of losing Western dominance to East Asian growth. However, both ideas explore the nature of the cyborg body and its soul, and which social groups are dehumanised based on the socio-political context. I’m really interested to hear what you think and if you have any examples of the trope in action – or maybe you completely disagree or you have a great film recommendation to do with the genre. I just remembered this extract, which is from an unrelated text about an art exhibition, but I think it has some resonance with how some cyborg stories make superficial aesthetic choices that may have dehumanising ideologies:

However, exoticism is not necessarily inherent in the works themselves. It is in their decontextualisation, not only in the shift from one culture to another (which is inevitable), but more importantly, in the displacement from one paradigm to another; this has emptied them of their meanings, leaving only what Fredric Jameson calls a ‘play of surfaces’ to dazzle the (dominant) eye.

Rasheed Araeen, “Our Bauhaus, Others’ Mudhouse”


Betsy Huang, Greta A. Niu, David S. Roe, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media.

Jane Hu, Where the Future is Asian, and the Asians are Robots

Takayuki Tatsumi, Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America.

Stephen Meyer, Manhood on the Line: Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland.

Rasheed Araeen, “Our Bauhaus, Others’ Mudhouse.”